Peter Pan and Wendy, Shakespeare Theatre Company

To pursue a culturally-conscious, socially-progressive, and "grown-up" retelling of a classically beloved story about the power of imagination and childhood dreams may seem like a tall order, but if there is one thing Shakespeare Theatre Company productions can do, it is get a new generation of theatergoers excited about the classics. In Peter Pan and Wendy, armed with technical excellence and Lauren Gunderson's innovative, self-aware, and feminist script, director (and STC Associate Artistic Director) Alan Paul manages to imbue a children's story with considerably more adult lessons about humanity, self-discovery, and ethical accountability while still paying homage to its signature magic. 

Photo of Sinclair Daniel, Chauncey Chestnut, Justin Mark and Christopher Flaim by Teresa Castracane.

Sidney Harman Hall is completely transformed by Emmy Award-winning Jason Sherwood's unceasingly meticulous set. From the stoic, gray Darling household lit by lamps and a distant London to a vast, dark sky pierced with stars to the ethereal, celestial Neverland, the production seems swathed in a yearning kind of creativity. The gasps and applause from the audience upon the reveal of each new world further confirm the feeling that the designers have achieved an effect of projecting everyone's wildest dreams and fantasies onto the stage. And by sharing in this collective awe, we as an audience are given the power to demonstrate that Neverland is only a reflection of the limitless beauty and magic dreamed up by those who call it home. 

The other source of magic in Gunderson's powerful new re-imagining can be seen in its courageous effort to tie Peter Pan's story to this moment in time, and therefore, to keep our very real Now relevant within a world bound by fiction. Her script presents Wendy (Sinclair Daniel) as an independent, opinionated young woman with equal respect and an advanced understanding of both make-believe and astronomical sciences. This version of the story also works to counteract the harmful stereotype of indigenous culture marring the original by giving Tiger Lily (Isabella Star LeBlanc), its main indigenous character, an activist's knowledge, voice, and passion when defending the history of her people and their homeland against both Peter's hubris and the colonialist violence and greed of Captain Hook's pirates. 

Photo of the cast of Peter Pan and Wendy by Scott Suchman.

The diverse cast of actors portraying our young cohort of heroes who work together to triumph against the evils of both the fantasy world and of reality leave an infectious amount of sweetness and silliness on the stage throughout the play. Peter (Justin Mark) has just enough boyish charm to make us want to follow his charismatic lead, and to make us the slightest bit more patient in his more misogynistic moments, especially with the guarantee that the women of Neverland will never pass up a teachable moment. Wendy, her brothers, and all of the Lost Boys leave no thought unsaid, making for a show full of giggles and memorable banter that sells the cast as a family that we are glad to see coming together by the end of the story. The bumbling pirates and their fearless leader Hook ricochet back and forth between menacing and milquetoast, keeping both the audience and the children of Neverland on their toes. 

Perhaps the only recurring comedic bit that did not always ring true was the Valley-Girl candor of the famous Tinkerbell (Jenni Barber). While her moments of solemnity and sincerity stood out and made us believe in the strength of her bond with both Peter and Neverland, Tink's mean-girl quips and ditzy add-ons do not do much for a character whose true colors as a loyal lieutenant are much better illustrated by her fierceness in the face of Peter's enemies than those of his friends. Not to mention, in one of the most powerful and interactive moments in the show, Peter pleads with the audience to assert their belief in fairy magic by clapping their hands together to revive Tinkerbell from a fatal blow by Captain Hook. The audience needs a reason to clap at that moment, and to believe Tink to be, despite her quirks, a vessel of magic and hope who is key to the good guys winning the day. 

As a whole, STC's Peter Pan and Wendy shines as the launching production of the theater's new family-friendly initiative this season. Young theatergoers and children will be transported by the grandiose beauty of the stage's physical world(s), while their thoughts will be no less provoked by the play's inclusion of life's harsher realities and the consequences of the choices we make for ourselves and others, in both youth and adulthood. This new sense of self-awareness and honoring our own truths seems to bolster the timelessness of J.M. Barrie's story as one about making room in our perspectives for both reality and fantasy, and thereby never outgrowing the magic of imagination that captures us in youth. In the words of Peter in response to a skeptical Wendy about the magic of Neverland, "I find that most magic is also a little bit true."


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